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Robson Valley Residents Take on Absentee Farm Owners

One rural town mulls three paths to ensure its fertile land is truly farmed.

By Thomas Rohner 5 Aug 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Thomas Rohner is a freelance investigative journalist. You can email him here.

After the riverside community of Dunster, B.C. learned a landholdings company owned by U.S. billionaires bought nearly 1,000 acres in the area, residents voiced concerns about rising real estate prices, abandoned farmland and declining populations throughout the Robson Valley. As the area's aging farmers sell off property to fund retirement, newcomers vying to live off the land find themselves competing with global investors.

"It's a really complex situation, and for me it's an age-old dance," Karyn Janecke, a local landowner said at a community meeting July 15. "We want to preserve our community, but we don't want to limit individual freedoms."

Most of the valley land on either side of the Fraser River is within the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), which can't be broken into parcels smaller than 150 acres. The restriction is meant to protect farmland, but is increasingly viewed as a cost barrier for middle-income buyers.

"The people who can buy big acreages are going to be people who have a lot of money and are not interested in farming," Glenda Thompson, another local landowner said at the meeting. "The people that can afford these big parcels will not be those type of people who will be part of the community. I can't see it."

On the other side of the table, another valley resident stressed industry-- not property -- was the valley's major concern. "We should be discussing how to preserve what we have, but also how to bring industry to the valley," he said. "We need to bring people who want to work into the valley, and those who will create jobs."

Communication breakdown

Fraser River Landholdings Ltd. is owned by Bobby Patton Jr. and Mark Walter -- wealthy American businessmen whose co-ownership of the LA Dodgers is only part of their massive portfolios.

One of the most consistent complaints locals have against the company is a lack of direct, meaningful communication. Media reps for the company declined four requests for interviews, replying instead through email. A tour of the properties was scheduled then cancelled.

Last month, the company published a letter in the local newspaper, saying it financially supports local businesses like the Dunster General Store and the Dunster Community Association. The letter said all properties were actively managed and farmed -- rebutting concerns that the lots are abandoned.

Locals took issue with the letter. "Mostly they buy gas at the Dunster Store," Lelani Arris, president of the Dunster Community Association and a former co-manager of the store, said, "and the store gets four cents per litre on gas sales." The community association treasurer could not find any records of the company's donations or membership.

"The question for me," Arris said, "is what's the real purpose behind the land grab? Is it for hunting? Investment? Is it carbon taxes?" No company reps attended the July 15 town hall. Without any direct communication, residents are left wondering what role the company will play in the community's future.

Protecting local owners

According to Okanagan College geography professor Arthur "Gill" Green, local land ownership is crucial to sustaining vital farming communities. "Without local ownership, often what you'll have is people who aren't part of the community making decisions based on their own interest," he said, "which can conflict with the community's."

An agriculture approach that emphasizes large-scale farming often prices out middle-income earners, opening the door for global capital and foreign ownership, says Green. "We are setting up a system of large landowners where, in order to access the land you have to do crop sharing or pay them money, and if you look at actual dynamics of our system, it's starting to mirror feudalism."

At the community meeting, Dave Connell, professor at the University of Northern British Columbia's environmental school of planning, presented on changes to B.C.'s regulation of agricultural land. Connell says a cultural shift toward locally-sourced food and smaller-scale agriculture is well documented, both in the Robson Valley and across B.C.

"There's five families I can name right now who are looking for smaller lots of land to farm and to become a part of the community," Charlie Green, a local looking to buy and farm land said at the July 15 meeting.

Connell acknowledged small-scale agriculture is just one tool the community can use to protect farmers at a grassroots level. "Locals would be happy not because they have small-lot agriculture but because there's enough small-scale agriculture that contributes to the vitality of the community."

Lenore Newman, research chair of food security and environment at the University of Fraser Valley, points to crown land as another tool at the province's disposal. About 85 per cent of B.C. is crown land; if even five per cent of it is opened for farming or even homesteading, farmland would become more accessible to average income earners, Newman said.

Homesteading -- a legal process in which farmers acquired crown land by clearing, developing and producing viable crops on wild terrain -- was taken off B.C.'s law books in the 1970s. "I would love to see them bring back homesteading," Pete Amyoony, a local gardener and landowner, present at the community meeting, said.

Newman admits homesteading is high-risk and would need to be modernized, but added, "I mean that's how we built this country. It was a hugely effective model."

Provincial restrictions on foreign land ownership could also prevent global capital from flooding the market, Newman added, and more regulation could ensure farmland is actually farmed. In France, for example, citizens must have an education in agricultural sciences or come from a farming family in order to own farmland.

"We need to look at these rules being used elsewhere," she said.

Three outlets for change

Connell identifies three avenues locals can use to influence land use policies: make an application to the Agriculture Land Commission (ALC); suggest amendments to local community plans; and participate in agricultural planning at the regional level.

The ALC regularly receives applications for subdivisions of larger parcels and judges each application on its own merit, Connell said.

A 2012 study of the applications assessed within the Fraser-Fort George district suggests the desire for small-lot agriculture has yet to surface. Out of 127 applications reviewed over 10 years, 89 were for subdivisions but only two per cent were for small-lot agriculture.

Martin Collins, a regional land use planner with the ALC, said he is unaware of a growing desire for small-lot agriculture. "Between Dunster and McBride there are 217 lots smaller than 16 hectares out of a total number of 643 lots. There are 86 lots smaller than two hectares. I don't think there's any shortage of smaller land parcels."

But professor Green, who also sat on the agricultural committee of Kelowna for two years, said the sample of applications the ALC reviews fails to include residents discouraged from applying. "The ALC is the end point of the application process. The beginning point is when people come to city staff." Green is currently studying the applications that never make it to the ALC review.

Community planning

Official Community Plans give locals a direct say on issues like land use, and are designed to be reviewed every five to ten years. The community plan for Electoral Area H, Downstream -- bound by Dome Creek to the west and Spittal Creek to the east -- hasn't been amended since 2002. "It's overdue for a review," Connell said.

Terry McEachen, general manager of development services at the Fraser-Fort George regional district, said community plans are always available for amending, whether on individual proposals or on specific policies.

"If there was a group of people who wanted a specific issue addressed, then they should get together and do a petition," he suggested. Support doesn't have to be extensive, but there should be evidence that a group of citizens would like initiatives like small-lot agriculture addressed.

Amendments can include policy changes, McEachen said, such as smaller parcel sizes, but community plans must be consistent with the ALC. An amendment to parcel sizes, then, would require ALC approval.

Regional planning

The most promising avenue for locals to affect farmland policy is the regional agricultural planning process, Connell said. A regional agriculture plan, independent of community plans and the ALC, starts the policy process, Connell said, by identifying needs and values and by recommending policy changes. Whether the plan is shelved indefinitely or, for example, adopted as a bylaw, is up to political will and leadership, he added.

Area B of the Squamish-Lillooet regional district spent the past 18 months developing an agricultural plan, and is set to release their final proposal in a few weeks. Jacquie Rasmussen chaired the plan's working group, and although she couldn't reveal the final proposals ahead of their official publication, said the regional district has already agreed to adopt the plan as a bylaw. "It was a very positive process," Rasmussen said. "I really hope you can get it going up in your region."

The Robson Valley's regional district hasn't committed itself to the process yet, McEachen said. "I'm doing a board report as we speak -- hopefully finishing in August."

Next steps

Ahead of these review opportunities, Dunster's community association president asked valley residents to submit their ideas. Ending an animated town hall discussion, Arris urged her neighbours to send big-picture hopes for the coming decades along with practical solutions. "We need to find a guiding vision," she said.

"I think it'd be good for us to have ideas as to what direction we want to go before we even approach the regional district about our community plan, or an agricultural plan," Amyoony added.

With another community meeting scheduled for early September, Dunster's residents remain committed to keeping fertile Robson Valley land productive -- even without input from at least one major stakeholder. "We all love this place, and we think it's an awesome place to live. And we want to make sure it's still an awesome place down the road."  [Tyee]

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